While we all know what we are doing at Christmas time there are rather more surprising facts about the season than you might imagine. ALIX NORMAN on all you ever needed to know about Christmas…
We all know that Santa’s reindeer are actually female. You’re also probably aware that Bing Crosby’s White Christmas is the best-selling record of all time. But did you know the cunning engineers behind the Voyager probe planned the mission so that no major planet passes would coincide with Christmas? Or that there’s a village in Peru where residents settle their grievances on December 25 with a series of public fist fights?
So, while you’re waiting for the turkey to cook (or the guests to arrive, this being Cyprus) here’s a host of interesting Christmas facts. And, later on, when the dinner table chat runs dry (or it looks like family fisticuffs are imminent, and you need a quick change of subject), you’ll have a wealth of conversational catalysts…
Firstly, a few frivolous financial facts. Because though the season ought to be about goodwill to all men (women don’t need goodwill, just a timely finger on the sellotape and a tidy supply of wine) we’re all secretly wondering how much we can save by regifting that hideous photo frame / crappy candle / out-of-date spa set. Such tribulations are not, however, cause for concern in Santa’s grotto. According to the Forbes Index of Wealthiest Fictional Characters, old St Nick tops the list, with a net worth of infinity (far beyond actual Rich List number one Bill Gates and his roughly 90 billion – bet he doesn’t regift!). In fact, Father Christmas could easily afford all 364 presents in the Twelve Days of Christmas – at a cost, according to the PNC Wealth Management Christmas Index, of approximately €30,000 in 2017. Interestingly, the ‘true love’ in the song is actually the Catholic Church’s code for God: the partridge being Christ, the two turtle doves the Old and New Testaments, and so forth. But, taken literally, it’s the swans-a-swimming that really set you back, their unpredictable breeding cycle ostensibly makes for an exceedingly uncertain supply…
Every year, Amazon reveals its list of most-wanted kids’ Christmas presents. In 2017, the Vtech Kidizoom Flix Playset (a sort of digital imaginary friend) tops the tables, closely followed by the Anki Cozmo (a mechanical sidekick), and the LEGO Boost Construction Toy (a robotic addition to a perennial favourite; apparently almost 28 sets of LEGO are sold every second during the season!). If you snapped up all three for your lucky little progeny, you’d be shelling out roughly €480. In fact, the cheapest item on the list is the €30 Pie Face Sky High Game (a toy which promotes seasonal peace by inviting public derision), a favourite with the generous Brits who spend, in total, €85 billion each Christmas – by far the highest amount in Europe.
Historically speaking, Christmas was rather cold. The reason we think of a white Christmas is all to do with weather cycles. During the time Christmas was becoming a big thing – the 16th to 19th centuries – the planet was undergoing what’s known as a Little Ice Age, with global temperatures several degrees lower than today, hence more snow. Today, the odds of a white Christmas are just 1 in 10 in England and Wales. In Scotland, it’s a little more likely, at 1 in 6. Here in Cyprus, unless you’re holed up in the higher reaches of the Troodos mountains or hire a snow machine, the probability is nil.
During WWII, the US playing card company Bicycle presented a pack of cards to every prisoner of war in Germany one Christmas. A nice gesture, and not as redundant as it might seem: when soaked, the cards revealed an escape route. Being a fairly common occurrence in the camps, the decks aroused no suspicion.
But it’s claimed they prompted over 300 escape attempts, more than 30 of which were successful.
In 1965, Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, with Gemini 6 astronauts giving their best rendition on December 16. But it was originally written not for Christmas, but for Thanksgiving. In a similar vein carolling, which began in Britain, was originally called wassailing and had nothing to do with money: it was all about toasting your neighbours and wishing them a long life.
ROUND THE WORLD
Back to Santa for a moment. Once you factor in the international date line, Father Christmas would have 34 hours to deliver all his presents. Assuming he visits 800 million nices and none of the naughties, it’s entirely possible to get the job done, as long as the sleigh could travel at 99.999999% the speed of light. You can, of course, follow this progress via the NORAD ‘Santa Tracker’, which provides live online updates (https://noradsanta.org/). But did you know this much-loved institution came about completely by accident? In 1955, a Sears ad ran a phone number for kids who wanted to speak to Santa about their potential presents. But a numerical misprint directed the little hopefuls to the hotline for one Colonel Shoup, Director of Operations for the US Continental Air Defence. Bemused staff were ordered to play along, giving updates on Santa’s flight coordinates, and an annual tradition began!
While Christmas is observed in almost every country around the world (the Japanese traditionally eat KFC for Christmas lunch; Iceland has 13 different Santas, with names such as Spoon Licker, Door Sniffer and Meat Hook; in Poland, spiders are revered during the month of December), it’s Columbia which can lay claim to perhaps the best celebration of all time. In December 2010, the Colombian government strung jungle trees with lights. These lit up when local FARC guerrillas walked by, and banners pleading for peace became visible. Due to the campaign (which later won an award for marketing excellence) a total of 331 guerrillas laid down their arms and re-entered society… A true Christmas miracle!
Ever wondered where Christmas trees and stockings originated? Well, the former come from Germany, where the custom of bedecking branches eventually morphed into the decoration of whole trees, generally with coloured paper, apples and candles. The latter is also European: Dutch legend has it that St Nicholas dropped the dowry money for the daughters of an impoverished gent down the chimney: the coins fell into stockings drying by the fire, saving the girls from a life, hem hem, on the streets.
The Scandinavians are also responsible for the whole milk and cookie thing – leaving a little something out for Santa being a Norse tradition – though it’s the French who gave us ‘noel’ (an abbreviation of les bonnes nouvelles, or the good news), and the Greeks (you probably know this) who started the Xmas trend, X or ‘chi’ being a shortened form of the word Christ. Christmas pudding comes from the UK (where it was originally a soupy concoction of raisins and wine – ugh), while both Santa’s lively livery and Rudolph’s (who was almost called Reginald) luminous nose emerged in the States, both a nod to marketing campaigns.
As for more current traditions, the hideous idea of the Elf on the Shelf (if you don’t know what this is, count yourself lucky) stems from a 2004 children’s book written by American Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. Almost as bad is the Facebook data which suggests the two weeks before Christmas is the most popular break-up time of the year – probably at the point where you you’ve shelled out for something sparkly from Tiffany’s and realise your other half is about to counter with a recycled Christmas card…
REASON FOR THE SEASON
Lastly, the real reason for the season. And here, it seems, we may be mistaken in much of what we believe. Various theologians suggest that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, but sometime in September between 6BC and 30AD. The wise men are never actually enumerated in the Bible (nor are they referred to anywhere as ‘men’, merely ‘magi’), and astronomers have suggested that their guiding light – the Star of Bethlehem – was either a passing comet or the planet Uranus. Similarly, there’s no Biblical reference to angels singing – herald the birth they did, but the actual phrase was, pre-translation from the ancient Greek, more probably praising in prose. And while the stable was likely a spare room, the supporting menagerie we know from nativity scenes is never actually mentioned – most of the animals were added to the story later as symbolism; apparently only the sheep were really present.
Nevertheless, the whole miracle and subsequent wonders are, indeed, the real reason for Christmas. A fact worth remembering, perhaps, in an age when it’s all Santa this, presents that, and who drank all the eggnog? Peace and goodwill to all men (even the drunken uncle passed out under the table by noon) is the order of the day, so do your best… Christmas does only come round once a year!